Reviews Short Narrative

Morast [Swamp] (2022) – 4 stars

Director: Nora Lüders

Writer: Nora Lüders

Cast: Ipek Özgen, Emre Cakir, Valon Krasniqi

There is a cliché that only talks about German cinema in terms of existentialism. In it, every filmmaker is assumed to be some meandering Herzogian caricature, speaking only in obtuse soliloquys referencing the angst and misery they find in ‘the world’ around them. That is unfair to German cinema. First, because there are and always have been artists in Germany who make all kinds of films, from pratfall comedy to idiotic action films, and bizarre documentaries about mini-golf. Second, because sometimes telling us the world is cruel and miserable is entirely appropriate, and not just borne of some desire to intellectualise avoiding talking about your own specific feelings.

There are some films that don’t necessarily help when it comes to disproving that stereotype, though – and at times, Morast is one of them. On a technical basis, the film is incredibly effective. But thematically, it feels like it is struggling with its own characters to move the conversation along.

The film centres on the brief re-connection of two siblings – Edda (Ipek Özgen) and Kilian (Emre Cakir) – after the former shows up at the latter’s apartment, unannounced. Kilian is high as a kite there with his boyfriend Dennis (Valon Kasniqi), playing chess, devouring orange-slices, and guffawing at nothing at all.

One particular moment with Kilian attempting to slice into an orange with a butcher knife without severing his thumb makes for a horrible moment of blind-panic – but it also does a good job of showing us where he is in his life. Coasting through a world of pain, blissfully unaware that at some point, it will catch up with him, however happy-go-lucky he feels.  

Into this scenario steps Edda, his estranged sister, promising to lift away that veil with some uncomfortable home-truths. Apparently, something in their familiar structure caused her to up and leave – in particular something to do with her parents. This scenario seems primed for a gradual unpicking of unresolved tensions.

To that end, Edda is unwilling to talk about either of her parents – though in some ways they are clearly on her mind. She evidently has some resentment of her father, but is still concerned with his wellbeing. In spite of asking how her father is, she stubbornly resists suggestions she could ask him herself. At the same time, when Kilian tries to play music their mother was fond of, she insists it hurts too much to hear.

There are things which have impacted her greatly in her early life, which she needs to speak about. But the film is either unwilling or unable to address them. Instead, Edda repeatedly fobs us off with long-winded musings on the great sadness of the world around her. The layers of her winding metaphors are never peeled back; we never understand the social or material factors that make her tick, only that she seems to understand life is inherently lonely – to the extent even fish feel solitude.

But life is not inherently lonely – there are alienating forces at play in modern life, certainly, but to get here cooperation and community have been necessary forces for the development of life, and human life especially, down to even a cellular level. What might have taken us away from that, have distanced us from controlling our lives and marooned us from our loved ones to the extent we could somehow believe life is simply atomised and disconnected? Neither Edda nor Kilian are willing to talk about that – either at a personal or political level. They simply dance around questions from an A-level philosophy textbook – and in some cases, that could be intentional and poignant. People do use grand philosophical messaging to evade speaking clearly about their material existence, admitting its short-comings, or causes thereof. But Morast does not seem to be serving us that – and after a few protracted discussions of abstract loneliness, our characters separate, Edda in particular behaving as though some higher truth has been realised – and a lesson we are not party to has been learned.

Hoping to find what the writer/director was aiming for, I skimmed the statement supplied by Nora Lüders. I am not sure if it makes me happier with the film as it is or not. It does strike me she might have been trying to address something more than the film manages to convey.

She talks about society as “a capitalist place that plays with our emotions,” and as one in which “quick satisfaction” subsequently sells well – helping “numb the feelings” capitalism’s contradictions cause in our lives – without having to ask bigger questions, or take up bigger fights to address them.  

In this story, Lüders argues:

“In Morast, I’m telling the process of searching, longing, pretending, escaping, fleeing, failing and eventually crumbling so that the raw core of hurt feelings is revealed. A swamp is a field of mud in which every step is exhausting and time consuming. That’s exactly what this story is about: A long way out of a misery that had been building up for many years. In my short film this happens within a sibling relationship that has been shaped by its family since childhood.”

That all sounds valid; personal yet relevant to a wider audience, in a way that could help them address issues in their own lives. But the film does not live up to that billing, because in the end, it features two people dodging wider questions around society, economics and the family model – and simply ‘opting out’ to find their happiness. But collective issues seldom come with individual solutions; sooner or later, society knocks at your door once more – and whether you opt in or not, it will ask a price from you. Running away from it often serves only to isolate you, cutting you off from the help of likeminded others in that inevitable reckoning, while leaving the issues of ‘capitalism’ etc to fester, and become harder to tackle.

As mentioned, I thought the technical basis of this film is excellent. It is beautifully shot – leaving a modest student house glowing invitingly one moment, and shrouded with smoke the next – well acted, and edited with precision. There is a lot of talent on display from this young team of artists, each of whom has a bright future. It would therefore seem unfair of me to mark the film down on the basis that I feel its story fails to tackle wider social and political issues – even if its director sought to do so – because some might argue it doesn’t need to. But I can’t help but feel there is something lacking here in the heart of Morast. That’s not the end of the world either, though. It is clearly a hole Lüders and her team will be able to fill in their future projects, which will be very exciting to see.

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